From Iceland — Iceland Disconnected: What if our submarine cables went bust?

Iceland Disconnected: What if our submarine cables went bust?

Published February 3, 2023

Iceland Disconnected: What if our submarine cables went bust?

It’s something out of a Hollywood blockbuster, or at least a symptom of some global crisis more central to the plot — be it zombie apocalypse, an alien invasion, or a cataclysmic global weather event. A world without internet. Have you ever really thought about how much of your daily life hinges on data connectivity and high-speed internet? Your apps and email, banking and shopping, even the light bulbs and other features of your modern smart home. Our lives are run by those little glass fibre cables connecting nearly every home and workplace in the world like the web of the monstrous Djieien.

Some 12 million Canadians got a taste of the disconnected life when, on July 8, 2022, telecommunications provider Rogers Communications experienced a major service outage. Home internet was down, mobile users couldn’t call emergency services, and the country’s major interbank network facilitating payments and money transfers ceased to exist. It was a day-long reckoning and it only affected roughly 25% of the country.

How would that situation play out on an island? How would that situation play out in Iceland?

Trouble down under

It was in September 2022, two months after that brief outage in Canada and seven months into Russia’s war on Ukraine, that the news of increased submarine activity around western infrastructure was making international headlines. As Moscow and European governments exchanged barbs about who was responsible for soaring oil prices and the slowed westward flow of Russian natural gas, there was a rupture in a pipeline running along the Baltic seabed. Then another and another and another.

Four ruptures were reported in the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines carrying natural gas from Russia to Germany. Two of the damaged areas lay within Denmark’s exclusive economic zone and two in Sweden’s. All four, a Swedish investigative team concluded in November, were the result of “gross sabotage.”

“It’s not just fibres, it’s actually a system, because we have to have amplifiers every 100 km or so to amplify the signal.”

“Analysis that has now been carried out shows traces of explosives on several of the objects that were recovered” Mats Ljungqvist, the prosecutor leading the investigation, said in a Nov. 18 press briefing that was reported on by The Guardian.

But what does this have to do with Iceland? We revel in our abundant geothermal energy, so those gas pipelines aren’t coming our way. But pipelines aren’t the only valuable pieces of infrastructure running along the bottom of the ocean.

In addition to increased NATO focus on the security of natural gas infrastructure, Russia’s global posture over the past years has seen the attention of western governments turn to the security of their submarine telecommunications cables. The globe-spanning network of more than 420 submarine communications cables measure more than 1.3 million kilometres and carry more than 90% of the world’s internet traffic.

In Iceland, it’s 100%.

Wait. Really?

OK, 99.999%.

“We have been operating now for the past 14 years with two modern submarine cables that have been providing all the internet connectivity between Iceland and the rest of the world,” explains Þorvarður Sveinsson, CEO of Farice.

Farice is the company tasked with operating the expansive submarine cables that connect the beaches of Iceland with network hubs in Scotland, Denmark and Ireland and the vast expanse of terrestrial networks beyond that spread like mycelium throughout mainland Europe.

Owned in its entirety by the Icelandic government, Farice was founded around its first submarine cable, FARICE-1, which became operational in the summer of 2003 to provide Iceland with international connectivity that could meet the country’s modern needs. Before FARICE-1 coming online, Iceland’s international connectivity was dependent on a combination of the by-then-outdated CANTAT-3 submarine cable and limited satellite connectivity.

“I would say that was kind of a first generation of the internet, with limited bandwidth,” Þorvarður says of connectivity before FARICE-1. “But we can see around 2000 when the internet was starting to really grow and the capacity need was really growing, those older technologies could just not support the capacity needs. That’s why we talk about the ‘modern cable’, the ‘modern communications cable’ — and the FARICE-1 cable was the first one of its type.”

As Þorvarður explains, Farice’s cables are far more than passive infrastructure. “It’s not just fibres, it’s actually a system, because we have to have amplifiers every 100 km or so to amplify the signal.”

To get technical, FARICE-1 has two fibre pairs, with five TeraBits Per Second (Tbps) capacity each, for a total of 10 Tbps. DANICE, which connects Iceland to Denmark, has four fibre pairs with a total 40 Tbps capacity, and IRIS (when it comes online sometime in the first quarter of 2023 to connect Iceland to Ireland) will transmit 120 to 132 Tbps over its six fibre pairs.

“It’s pretty much the situation that you see. I’m not going to sugar coat it and claim there’s a plan in place.”

By comparison, the CANTAT-3 cable that Iceland relied on before FARICE-1 came online transmitted 3 x 2.5 gigabits per second between North America and Europe, with a branch hooking up Iceland with that sweet, sweet early-90s bandwidth.

“The main point that touches everyone in Iceland is if the cables all go down, it’s going to be like 1990-something,” says Guðmundur Jóhannsson, communications officer at telecommunications company Síminn. “We’re going back to the beginning of the Brit-pop era — that’s the fact of the matter. We’re going that far back in terms of what we could do with technology.”

Illustration by Kosmonatka

The brief, in brief

It’s a possibility that key players at Iceland’s telecommunications providers have been briefed on. Around the same time that pipelines were rupturing in the Baltic, Farice was informing Iceland’s network providers of increased submarine activity around the areas where they’re monitoring the cables, according to a person working in the field and speaking with the Grapevine on the condition of anonymity.

It’s a briefing both Guðmundur at Síminn and Benedikt Ragnarsson, Nova’s chief of technology and innovation, acknowledge, though they appear to have polar approaches to addressing the hypothetical situation of the cables going bust.

“It’s pretty much the situation that you see,” Benedikt says, matter of factly when asked whether there’s a plan B. “I’m not going to sugar coat it and claim there’s a plan in place.”

Nova’s approach, as Benedikt explains it, appears to lean heavily on the nation’s unofficial but ubiquitous þetta reddast motto. “There is always an action plan and it lies within the adaptability of the people,” he says, underscoring the resourcefulness of the populace as a whole. “When something happens, you improvise. Larger nations want to have everything planned and pre-planned. We here in Iceland have the luxury of doing things differently.”

Guðmundur, on the other hand, explains that Síminn does have plans and processes in place for a number of hypothetical scenarios Iceland’s telecommunications infrastructure might face.

“We do exercises so if something happens we know what to do, and we do it. It’s just part of our security culture that we do exercises that are mimicking exactly what we are talking about (a submarine cable outage) or, say, mimicking the power going out all from Akureyri to Reykjavik. It’s just to be ready when something happens.”

“You always have to prepare for the worst,” he continues. “We play a certain part in Iceland as a telecommunications company, we take that seriously and that’s something we have to be ready for — though we hope we never have to activate that plan!”

Not a new concern

Though a heavy reliance on global internet connectivity is a development of the past 20 years or so, targeting submarine cables in times of global conflict is a trend with a much longer history.

The USS Zafiro was tasked with finding and severing submarine communications cables off the coast of the Philippines during the Spanish-American war in 1898. Britain cut a handful of German underwater communications cables and tapped the rerouted traffic for intelligence during World War One. Cord cutting was employed again as a tactic during the Second World War.

Even the most recent fear circulating around the security of global submarine telecommunications cables — the very concern Iceland’s providers have recently been briefed on — isn’t brand new. The New York Times was reporting in Oct. 2015 that, “Russian submarines and spy ships are aggressively operating near the vital undersea cables that carry almost all global Internet communications.” And the Associated Press questioned in 2018 what the Russians were doing loitering around choke points of the cables that are responsible for global communication and over which US $10 trillion in daily financial transactions travel.

One Russian vessel named in both those instances, the Yantar, was making headlines again in late 2021, when it was spending time off the coast of Ireland. Dublin, of course, is one of the world’s biggest hubs for data centres — as Iceland aspires to be. The Russian Navy ship is equipped with a hangar to launch submersible drones that can dive to a depth of 6,000 metres. Those drones have mechanical arms to operate on seabed infrastructure, while the Yantar itself is equipped with sonar to map the seafloor.

Illustration by Kosmonatka

A nation without an army

While the United States and other NATO members seem to be systematically monitoring the movements of Russian ships and submersibles around submarine infrastructure, Iceland famously does not have a military. So what is Alþingi doing?

We turned to Minister for Foreign Affairs Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörd Gylfadóttir for information on how the government is responding to the the state of international affairs in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the plans the government is putting in place to prepare for the worst case scenario of Iceland’s submarine infrastructure being tampered with.

“Of course there are plans for such a scenario and such plans are always under review and internal scrutiny,” the ministry told the Grapevine in a statement. “All countries in our region are concerned about the security of underwater infrastructure. Iceland, like most other NATO countries, is developing contingency plans, seeking alternative connections while stepping up information sharing and cooperation with allies in the region to increase situational awareness.”

What those “alternative connections” might be, the Minister didn’t specify, but the consensus from those we spoke with in the industry is that they are few and extremely limited in capacity. Moreover, restoring the connection in the event of all of Iceland’s modern cables going offline could take weeks to months.

“We have never seen what we call a ‘wet section fault;’ a fault in the system in the ocean,” Þorvarður reminds me — an impressive statistic and something Farice attributes to its focus on preparation and its strong relationship with the nation’s fisheries. “And that’s quite important, because if we have a fault in the ocean and it’s in the middle of winter, it can take months until the weather is good enough for us to be able to fix it. We might have to call in special vessels with special equipment to take the cable up and fix it.”

“So we could have a small microcosm of an Icelandic internet. It sounds like some kind of dystopian North Korean internet and it’s not something anybody wants, but maybe that could be some kind of small thing.”

In the meantime, Iceland’s connectivity to the outside world would be relegated to satellites. Only, as Guðmundur explains, satellites are an expensive commodity and Iceland doesn’t actually own any. “So we would have to rent access to existing satellites and that’s expensive, but the main thing is that it’s also slow and the latency is really high.”

“But because the bandwidth is limited on satellites,” Guðmundur continues, “it would mean that probably the government would step in and say that they would have to prioritise the traffic for the government, for the central bank, for other critical institutions, so that we can run the community here. So we would use the bandwidth for critical infrastructure instead of us being able to go to YouTube.”

North Korea … of the North

The difference between connectivity in Europe or North America in the event of some mass submarine cable outage and connectivity in Iceland in the same instance comes down to the terrestrial connections. While many aspects of the global markets would grind to a halt were inter-continental connectivity to be severed, life could go on fairly close to normal for the average person in the United States or Canada, since a massive number of the digital services and websites they’re accessing daily are hosted on the continent. The same can be said for mainland Europe’s connectivity to the wealth of services and websites hosted there.

In Iceland, however, an unprecedented outage of the submarine cables would effectively turn this island nation into a hermit state as far as the internet is concerned.

“All the Icelandic servers that are located in Iceland could communicate and send traffic between each other,” Guðmundur explains. “So we could have a small microcosm of an Icelandic internet. It sounds like some kind of dystopian North Korean internet and it’s not something anybody wants, but maybe that could be some kind of small thing that everybody could do, so that you could get the news, you could do some banking.”

It should be noted, though, that the banking you could do would amount to checking your balance — unless you bank with Íslandsbanki, which hosts its website in Dublin — and possibly withdraw cash. All credit card clearing houses are hosted outside of Iceland, so your plastic would be worthless.

While the government is not forthcoming about what they can or are doing to prepare for the — again, highly unlikely — event of Iceland losing connectivity with the broader world, migrating data back to Iceland is something that local companies can do to ensure connectivity with domestic users in a worst case scenario.

It’s been in vogue, in recent years, for Icelandic companies to host their data in the cloud or at data centres abroad, just as a number of big name international firms conduct a great deal of their high-performance computing at data centres based in Iceland. If more and more Icelandic services and businesses ensure they’re hosting their data in Iceland, the better that worst-case scenario dystopian internet would be. As it currently stands, an Iceland-centric internet would let those connected browse just shy of 3,500 sites hosted domestically.

One thing that would work as normal is voice services within Iceland. So you would be able to call your bestie to cry over what you’re not watching on Netflix, or lament that you had to get up to turn off the lights because Alexa is AWOL.

“Voice services would be completely normal because it’s not dependent on satellites or the sea cables in any way. It’s all local,” Guðmundur says. “All the terrestrial fibres and the 5G should just be working normally.”

“That’s maybe a contingency plan for the government to act on or have in place, so people can go to RÚV or MBL and visit Heilsuvera, and all that kind of stuff — those critical things that just involve getting information to people so they can at least keep their lives as normal as possible.”

Hey, you’ll always have

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